EXETER – The name Oatley, which is synonymous in Exeter with breakfast, is also synonymous with beef, as in prize-winning steers including the most recent standout – the Grand Champion of the Eastern States Exposition, raised by 16-year-old Ethan Oatley and shown earlier this fall.
According to an official announcement, Donald R. Chase, “Big E” board chairman bought Ethan’s 1,285-pound steer, winner in the medium weight division, for $6.60 a pound, totaling $8,481 during the 4-H Beef Auction. Apparently it’s become a tradition for the chairman to make this symbolic purchase. Competing 4-H members exhibit grain-fed beef cattle they’ve raised from birth, meticulously maintaining records of the animals’ development. Proceeds from the auctions help club participants support the organization’s beef program, various projects and assist with college tuition.
Ethan, a junior at Exeter-West Greenwich High School, showed his first steer at the age of three – at the North Stonington (Connecticut) Fair – where his entry was named Reserve Champion. He was 13 when he first tested the waters of the Big E but other family members had preceded him into the winner’s circle.
His dad, Vern, who began showing steers at age 8, won the Big E in 1982.
And then in 2008, Ethan’s sister Victoria swept the field at the Eastern States, taking Grand Champion in two weight classes and Reserve Grand Champion in a third – a feat never before accomplished. Now 20, Victoria is studying agriculture at Oklahoma State University where Ethan plans to join her in a year after he finishes high school.
That will leave Olivia, 11, who is raising her own steer named Havoc.
“We work together,” Terrie Oatley says of her family. Her own chores include picking up and hauling grain from Allie’s as well as feeding the stock because “they’re all on different rations.” Everybody pitches in to clean up after the cattle.
Vern and a brother volunteer with 4-H and the shows. Terrie’s late mother, Rachel Gauvin – who is very much missed – had multiple jobs when the family was on the road at shows.
“She was the mess cook, ran the camper, took the pictures and labeled everything” after competition victories Terrie recalls.
A member of the 4-H club Gotcha Talkin’, Ethan says he basically was born with farmer’s genes in his farmer’s jeans.
“I always wanted to do it,” he says of the love of cattle that has become his passion. “I had toy cows when I was little. My sister and I pretended to show them,” even making halters from string.
At the moment Ethan is raising three steers: Bullet, Jagger and a small one named Ricochet. When he gets home from school, he takes the trio through a set routine.
“They’re tied up every day. I use a [giant] hairdryer – more like a leaf blower – to blow out all their hair and remove shavings and other debris. Then they’re misted before a final dry-out with a special conditioner that uses olive oil to create a sheen. They’re combed to stimulate hair growth.”
His mom adds, “It’s a beauty pageant” which begs the question: Is it too late to rename one of them Honey Boo-Boo?
The herd has been pared to a more manageable 14 head from 24. “In the spring we’ll have a bunch of babies,” Ethan explains.
While he admits he and Victoria have always gone “back and forth” with their victories – he would win one event and she would take the next – he says the friendly rivalry might someday result in a perfect collaboration.
Perhaps the two of them will own a business together, producing championship cattle and making Oatley a nationally-known name.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is a freelance journalist for SRIN.